Chapter

Kant on Punishment: A Coherent Mix of Deterrence and Retribution?

Thomas E. Hill

in Respect, Pluralism, and Justice

Published in print March 2000 | ISBN: 9780198238348
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780191597688 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/0198238347.003.0008
 Kant on Punishment: A Coherent Mix of Deterrence and Retribution?

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Although Kant is often regarded an extreme retributivist regarding judicial punishment, the need to deter crime also plays a significant role in his theory of criminal law. Kant's special way of combining deterrence and retribution, however, must be distinguished from others that are less plausible. Kant thought that criminal punishments should be designed to match the victim's empirically discernible losses in degree and kind, except when this would be impossible or degrading; for courts cannot measure the ultimate moral desert of criminals. Arguably, Kant's justification of the practice of punishment is not deeply retributive, but punishment is also not a mere disincentive in a ‘price’ system of social control. For better or worse, punishment tends to convey a public message of moral disapproval of the criminal conduct; and, though this de facto expressive function is not for Kant, the purpose or justification of punishment, it may help explain his concern for making the severity of punishments proportional to the gravity of crimes and his refusal to allow exceptions for merely pragmatic reasons.

Keywords: criminal law; deterrence; expressive function; Kant; moral desert; moral disapproval; punishment; retribution

Chapter.  12719 words. 

Subjects: Moral Philosophy

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